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Students walk outside Pershing High School, Jan. 20, 2017, in Detroit.
Carlos Osorio/AP
Water & Sanitation

Detroit Schools Turn Off Drinking Water After Discovering Lead and Copper


Why Global Citizens Should Care
Approximately 63 million people in the United States have been exposed to unsafe drinking water, an issue that disproportionately affects low-income communities and people of color. Join us in taking action to ensure all people have access to clean water here.

Public schools in Detroit have turned off their taps after new tests confirmed high levels of lead and copper in the water, the New York Times reported Thursday.

While ongoing water testing has found lead and copper in more than a dozen schools in the district since 2016, the results of new tests released last week found that 16 out of 24 schools tested are contaminated with these toxic metals.

With many schools still waiting up to a month for their test results to come back, Superintendent Dr. Nikolai P. Vitti made the preemptive call to shut off drinking water across all 106 of Detroit’s school districts just ahead of the start of the academic year.

Take Action: Sign the petition and call US leaders asking them to support a funding increase for education in 2018

“Now that we’re seeing these higher levels of lead and copper, there’s no need to roll the dice,” he told the New York Times.

Students will still be able to wash their hands and flush toilets, but will only be able to drink bottled water.

In a joint statement, the Great Lakes Water Authority and the Detroit Water and Sewage Department assured Detroit residents that they are not be affected by the lead and copper detected in the schools’ water and cited “aging school infrastructure” as a likely source of the problem.

Deteriorating infrastructure, such as old plumbing, crumbling roofs, and inadequate heat and air conditioning systems have long been an issue for Detroit’s public schools, which are notoriously under-resourced.

The situation has been compared to the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, where residents have been without drinkable water since 2014. The water crisis in Flint, which has a high poverty rate, and the government’s slow response is deeply linked to systemic environmental racism, according to a report by the the Michigan Department of Civil Rights.

Read More: This Flint, Michigan, Native’s Tweetstorm Perfectly Embodies His City’s Frustration

Detroit’s public schools have seen neglect, both in terms of funding for the upkeep of infrastructure and improvements to the quality of education. A court case, concluded in July, in which students sued state officials over the poor quality of their education and resources, found that “access to literacy” is not a constitutional right. The judge also ruled that the case did not prove the state had practiced overt racial discrimination.

Although students did not win their case, it did bring to light the inequalities in the US education system. People living with low incomes and people of color often do not have the same access to education and literacy as those who live in wealthier, more privileged school districts.

“Historically, access to literacy has been a tool to subordinate certain groups and certain communities and to keep those communities down,” Public Counsel Mark Rosenbaum told the New York Times.

In Detroit, public school students with limited access to educational resources are now underscored by lead and copper-ridden drinking water. Until quality education and health care are treated as constitutional rights for all people, crises like this one are likely to persist.